Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Swellendam - mixing business and pleasure.


On Tuesday I had to go see some clients in Swellendam, a short 200km hop from George. Being the opportunist that I am I quickly turned this into an opportunity for a bike ride Asterix, who is on school holiday, was not to be outdone. He also jumped at the opportunity to go with.

The appointment in Swellendam was rather early so we had to hit the highway to get there. A tarred highway is not my idea of fun and on top of that it was raining, but hey, even a bad day on the bike is better than a good day in the office!

Luckily the rain let up a short distance out of George. The view towards Mosselbay - what a beautiful area we live in!

We arrived in Swellendam with 10 minutes to spare and had a lovely breakfast meeting. And after our meeting the fun could start

Asterix have you ever heard of Suurbraak? What about colourful characters such as Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel or Joseph Barry? The Khoi word tradau? No? Well, before our ride begins let me give you some background...

In the early days this area was a frontier village on the old pioneer wagon road to the Eastern Cape. In 1743 the small town that subsequently sprung up had been declared a sub-drostdy for the outer districts of the Cape Colony. It developed so rapidly that just two years later the settlement was officially named the Swellendam District in honour of Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel and his wife Helena van Damme.

In 1795 the local "burgers" dismissed the landdrost and claimed independence of colonial Cape Town (incidentally the same thing happened in Graaff-Reinet the same year). The "independance" only lasted four-and-a-half months though The town that developed round its Drostdy (magisterial building) became the capital of what became known as the Overberg district.

A prominent businessman in those days was Joseph Barry who founded the family firm Barry and Nephews, a company that employed skilled craftsmen who supported the farming community. According to historians the lively song, "As jy lekker wil lewe koop by Barry Newe", was regularly sung by children playing along Swellendam's bustling main street. In those days Swellendam also had a newspaper, a racetrack and a library.

The beautiful Church in Swellendam - architectural art:

In 2008 it was decided to repair the wooden tower (due to rot). The removal of the tower went horribly wrong (see video clip here). Luckily everything has been restored to it's former glory.

In the early prosperous days of Swellendam the Barrys even organised a shipping service on the lower course of the Breede river. Because it took a full three weeks for wagons to transport merchandise to Cape Town, shipping the wealth of the Overberg to the Cape by sea was much more profitable.

On 26 September 1859 the 158-ton, specially built steamer "Kadie" arrived at the mouth of the Breede (known then as Port Beaufort) on her maiden voyage from Cape Town. She successfully negotiated the treacherous sand bar and steamed the 48 kilometres upstream to Malgaskraal (now Malgas), about 40 kilometres from Swellendam. It was a day of celebration and the district anticipated a bright future. This is where the Tradouw Pass first comes into the picture.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves...

Only 19km East of Swellendam, and only 10km off the N2, lies a place called paradise.

The Attaqua Tribe of the Quena (Hottentot) people of Southern Africa occupied the area known as Suurbraak today, which lies on their ancient trade route. The kraals (settlements) of these trading people possessed such natural beauty that they called it Xairu, meaning "beautiful". The earliest Dutch cattle traders translated the name to Paradise.

In 1812 Hans Moos, a chief of the Attaqua Khoisan, requested that the London Missionary Society to send a missionary to the settlement. The London Mission Society established a mission station there in the same year, after which the Anglican Church and school was built as a result of a split in the congregation.

The isolation of Suurbraak which is one of its charms, limits the financial resources of the people. It's like time stood still and many still cook on wood stoves. The people live close to the land using farming methods that belong to the past. The smaller farms are still ploughed using horse drawn ploughs. Agricultural work is often done manually. Many households own at least one cow and some horses. Horses and donkey drawn carts are often seen here on the streets.

Suurbraak's history is somewhat different from many of the other nearby Overberg towns. This is one of the only places in recorded South African history where whites were required to move out during the time of the Apartheid.

The village is well worth visiting. It takes you right back to the time the Barry's lived in the neighbouring Swellendam. Now once the Barrys had established their shipping company they could profitably transport Swellendam's cargoes of butter, wool, sheep and grain to Cape Town, they turned their attention to the products of the Little Karoo. The problem was the Langeberg mountain that formed a huge barrier between the Little Karoo and the Overberg.

And so we introduce a well known name. That of the brilliant road engineer Thomas Bain.

In 1869 Bain turned his attention to the Tradouw Pass (the unusual word tradau means 'the way of the women' and is believed to be derived from the Khoi words tra signifying 'women' and dau denoting 'way through').

Bain was welcomed warmly by the Barrys who invited his family to move into a beautiful old house on the farm Lismore (situated 3km from Suurbraak) and the Barrys and the Bains became great friends.

Soon the construction of the pass began. Bain knew that river courses, like roads, preferred the path of least resistance. He therefore decided that the pass should follow the same winding course that the Tradouw River had carved through the landscape.

One of the first things you come across as you ride towards the Tradouw Pass from the Suurbraak side is the Andries Uys Bridge.

Bain built a six-metre-span bridge over the Gats river as part of the original construction and this was called Letty's bridge after on of the Barrys. Unfortunately it was washed away in 1875, two years after the opening of the pass. Bain then replaced it with a higher twelve-meter-span Teak bridge which was in use until 1979 when it was replaced by the modern Andries Uys Bridge.

This is what the old bridge looks like today:

Back to the construction of the pass. With the line of construction said to be "very favourable", Bain set to work with the main team of convicts. Road and river followed one another's twists and turns and care was taken to keep the route well above the highest flood level.

Some in-ride shots taken by Asterix:

Some friendly bikers also enjoying the scenery:

In 1873 the Tradouw Pass was open to traffic and Bain was sent away to construct a railway line through Tulbagh Kloof.

Soon after its completion the farming community built a church at the top of the pass and the town that grew up round it was named in honour of the Barry family - Barrydale.

We stopped at a very popular bike-friendly spot for lunch - the Country Pumpkin.

Asterix sporting his new "Route 62" badge

We were having a good time but the story has a sad ending. In 1865 a series of tragic events in and around Swellendam triggered the fall of the golden years of commerce.

On 17 May that year a fire sparked from a baker's oven razed the town destroying 40 thatch roofed homes. Even more destructive were the effects of a terrible drought and a subsequent trade depression. The next disaster could not have come at a worse time. On 17 November, after 120 voyages, the Kadie steamer struck the rocks on the western bank of the Breede and was totally wrecked. The Barry empire teetered and was eventually liquidated.

Travelling between Swellendam and Barrydale is a scenic and popular route, but it is so much more interesting once you know the history of the area. Some interesting trivia is that Swellendam is South Africa's third oldest town and the Barry family still owns and lives on Lismore Farm.

After lunch Asterix and I went to say hello to some friends at the world famous Ronnie's Sex Shop.

And then we hit the Klein Karoo gravel roads.

We were traveling East. We had to get home. But first we had to get over the mountain again and we chose a pass much older than Tradouws Pass - Gysmanshoek Pass (originally known as Plattekloof Pass).

Looking towards the pass:

Looking back from the pas as in the picture above:

Plattekloof Pass was opened up in 1740 by the Trekboers (migrant farmers). The pass was improved in 1841 and 1860, but fell in disuse after the construction of the Tradouw and Garcia's passes in 1873 & 1877 respectively. Today the road is only used by local farmers.

Notice how much greener the side facing South is.

And as we travel across the Langeberg towards the coast you can see how the flora changes as we ride into a wetter climate.

We ride past the Korrente Dam on the way to Riversdale. The dam's level is well below normal. The entire Southern Cape region is feeling the effect of the worst drought in over a 100 years.

In Riversdal we saw this - interesting colour scheme for a church:

From Riversdal we headed straight home as it was getting late. What a great day though.

Closer to George at the airport we spotted this:

This is the plane that overshot the runway a while back (Article here.) Seems like it's being stripped for parts.

What a great way to spend the day. I was really surprised during my research to read about the steamers that used to work on the Breede. After the Kadie steamer was wrecked other steamers continued to trade out of Port Beaufort until as recently as 1933, but these days you'll only see recreational craft and fishermen.

Having been to Malgas I can imagine that seeing a 158-ton ship steaming in must have been a spectacular sight! Apparently the remains of the SS Kadie steamer are still visible at the Infanta shore. We'll go have a look some day. Soon


Sources: Getaway; thewesterncape.co.za; overbergonline.co.za; Romance of the Cape Mountain Passes

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice post - Very nice Bike!

Swellendam Business is headed for great things.

The Mayor has sponsored the first

Internet Marketing Workshop to be held at the Municipality hall on the 22nd December 2010 at 4pm.